By John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16, 384 pages
Meet the author
John Jeremiah Sullivan will be reading at the True Story! Reading Series at 8 p.m. Dec. 9 at Kavarna, 707 E. Lake Drive, Decatur. 404-371-1113, http://truestoryga.blogspot.com. Admission is free.
By Gina Webb
Wherever John Jeremiah Sullivan goes, enlightenment and epiphanies follow. Not the churchy kind, though. His particular brand of reverence comes from a deep-seated belief that meaning and miracles lurk beneath the surface of anything from prehistoric cave paintings to the highs and lows in the life of former Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose.
The award-winning critic and journalist shares his revelations in “Pulphead,” a collection of essays about American culture that include profiles of pop icons Rose and Michael Jackson, a reminiscence about the author’s brother, a portrait of Southern literary lion Andrew Lytle, cave paintings in Tennessee, a glimpse of Mississippi singer Geeshie Wiley, a biographical sketch of a misunderstood 19th-century French botanist, and basically, a few other things that you wouldn’t expect to find in a book called “Pulphead.”
In these 14 first-person forays — many into Southern history, and all delivered with an irresistible blend of erudition and curiosity, awestruck guy-next-door and gritty reporter — Sullivan reveals the way his mind was blown during each of them.
Some of these moments describe subtle deconstructions, as in “Michael [Jackson],” which asks us to re-envision the King of Pop, including his alleged pedophilia and the “self-mutilated creature” he became. What if we were to discover that deep inside, he was an innocent who felt that “all of creation was sound … that it’s music,” or that the face he created was his real face?
In the jaw-dropping “Feet in Smoke,” Sullivan revisits the day of his brother’s accidental electrocution and the alternate reality his brother briefly inhabited upon regaining consciousness — at first alarming, then gradually less threatening, and finally, one that Sullivan compares to “one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high, before we tried the real thing and found out it was slightly less magical.” A mind literally blown, but perhaps “a good place to be, you might even say a poetic place.”
There couldn’t be a more appropriate setting for an epiphany than the Christian rock festival in “Upon This Rock,” but Sullivan approaches it with rare skepticism, convinced nothing will happen. Meh, he’ll take notes. “Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.” Instead, five galumphing good ole West Virginia boys adopt him, feed him pan-fried frogs’ legs and leave him as “on fire for Christ” as they are, recalling his own teenage years in an evangelical group and feeling the love.
Sullivan’s blend of brainy intensity, respect for his subjects, and earnest enthusiasm combine with a lack of cynicism not often found in journalism today — there is almost no snark quotient here — and he has a kind of ageless ability to identify with his subjects, from the tormented soul of the French polymath who nearly beat Darwin to the punch to the lost soul of the Miz from reality TV’s “The Real World.”
This ability to blend in for the purposes of getting the story dovetails with a reluctant risk-taking, as when, exploring the cave art in one of the “Unnamed Caves” in Tennessee, Sullivan finds out he won’t be walking upright into a nice cool alcove and shining a flashlight up on the walls to see the ancient mud glyphs, sorry.
“The pictures are found in dark-zone sites — places where the Native American people who made the artwork did so at great personal risk, crawling meters or, in some cases, miles underground with cane torches … .” And so do Sullivan and his guide. “We squeezed through on our bellies,” he writes. “The squeeze got tight enough that, as I wriggled on my stomach, the ceiling was scraping my back … .” His guide mentions that “they’d had to dig a couple of people out.” (OK, deep breaths.)
Then, to reach the next cave he visits, all he has to do is position his body “horizontally between the walls of the cave — sideways — with his feet against one wall and his shoulders against the other, thrusting his muscles to fix himself there.” Then sidle his body to the right, because “that’s how you’d pass over the sixty-foot drop in the floor.” (My italics.)
No better metaphor exists for the way Sullivan gives it up to go with the flow, one of the prime components of the serendipity and synchronicity that crop up in these pieces, without which the element of chance that leads mysteriously to meaning might never emerge.
Being as game as Sullivan is has a bit of holiness about it, of surrender. If he has to squeeze toothpaste-style through rock crevices to get at Tennessee’s prehistoric culture, he wriggles. When his new best friends at the Creation rock concert cut the legs off live frogs and throw them into a skillet, he eats them. When his 92-year-old mentor, in the grips of dementia, asks Sullivan to keep him warm in bed, he snuggles.
As a result, to paraphrase what he says early on about Michael Jackson, something magical happens in “Pulphead”: “A god moves through it. The god enters, the god leaves.”
Read this book: Your blown mind will thank you.
Born in Louisville, Ky., Sullivan attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn. He now lives in Wilmington, N.C., with his family and is currently the Southern editor for the Paris Review. In addition to “Pulphead,” he is the author of “Blood Horses.”